Like most special events that have existed for over half a century, this year’s upcoming Reno Air Races again reminds me of the dynamic founder of that event.
His name was Bill Stead, who happened to be a very close personal friend of Charles Mapes and he was an avid private pilot and hydroplane driver. Scion of a large ranching family, I had first met Stead at the Thomas C. Wilson Advertising Agency when it was handling Stead’s cattle trucking company and I was a University of Nevada Journalism intern at the Wilson Agency.
As to the initial Air Races, it happened this way. One morning at my office in the Mapes Hotel, I received a phone call from owner Charles Mapes saying that he would be sending Stead down to discuss a rather interesting idea for a special event.
When Stead showed up, he settled down comfortably and began to discuss his plan. He said that he felt that since there were no national air races scheduled at that time, there would be a good possibility that he could get some of his fellow Hydro drivers, who were also accomplished airplane pilots, to participate in an inaugural race that could be staged at the Sky Ranch Airport on Pyramid Way. He added that he had already convinced Mapes that the headquarters for the race would be his Hotel. He also noted that his next stop would be to see Roy Powers, who was the PR man at Harold’s Club.
I asked him how many planes he anticipated attracting and he said he could probably get a half dozen or so. I remarked that didn’t seem to be much of a show and he replied that he had also contracted a number of hot-air balloonists to put on a demonstration. He went on to say that there were several service-related flying demo teams from which he might be able to attract one to appear in Reno. When he ticked off the names of those teams, the one that struck me immediately was the Air Guard squad. I told Stead that a previous client of mine, US Senator Howard Cannon, was high-up in Air Force matters in DC and that he could probably help us. We immediately placed a call to the Senator and relayed our request to him. He asked for the dates of the event and said he would get back to us in a couple of hours. True to his word, he called back and told us that the team was available and that their contact person was one Ed Mack Miller, who resided in Denver. Miller’s name came as a pleasant surprise to me, because in my previous work at the Nevada Catholic newspaper Miller had been my contact man at the national Catholic printing press, which was located in Denver.
A quick call to Miller resulted in the fact that he was an announcer for the team as well as being a backup pilot. He said that if we could provide housing arrangements at the Hotel, including food and booze, he could schedule the team for the three full days of racing.
Stead’s next stop was Harold’s Club, where it was decided that in addition to sponsorship, Harold’s would put on a cross-country race from an airport in Florida to Reno prior to the start of the Air Races. This ensured that the initial Air Races would undergo a great deal of national publicity.
The actual first Air Races were a tremendous success with cars lining the Pyramid Highway from Sparks to Sky Ranch. The first winner was a Czechoslovakian defector named Mira Slovak.
At that time, the Sky Ranch had dirt runways so much of the action was obscured and fans were often covered by the dust.
Some years ago, I was involved in a promotion that featured a PR guy from Chicago who gave me an interesting tip. It was that he had a canned or stump speech entitled, “One Man Can Make a Difference”. He said that when he went to different locations, all he had to do was insert the name of a sponsor and repeat the speech over and over.
That “one man” tribute could easily apply to the late Bill Stead. For without his dogged persistence and connections to other pilots, the initial race would probably never have occurred.
For the past ten years or so, I have advocated that a bronze life-size statue of Stead should be erected at the front gates of the present Air Races which are held at Stead Airbase. While the names are the same, the base was named after Stead’s brother Crofton, a former pilot who died in a plane crash.